We are bombarded with messages about the evils of sugar. Sugar is blamed for bad behavior in kids, diabetes, heart disease, cancer... the list goes on and on. But is sugar really so bad?
I was convinced that sugar was bad
I am the type of person who tends to act quickly and jump right in, so when I started learning about how "bad" sugar was, I immediately started to restrict it. For over 5 years, I restricted my sugar intake, and took my family along for the ride with me. I thought that dessert was something to only enjoy once in awhile, and I still felt a little guilty about eating dessert even infrequently. Over time, I kept reducing our sugar intake more and more, thinking that being even more strict would make us healthier.
But guess what? Our sugar consumption was less and less, but we didn't become any more healthy. And I noticed that my daughter was becoming fixated on sweets. In my quest to give her the best possible health, she was allowed to eat very little sugar her whole life. But something definitely seemed out of balance since she was still getting sick very frequently. When she was 4, I noticed my daughter was starting to hoard sweets, and she even exhibited some binge behavior by sneaking a large tub of raisins into her room and eating them all.
Did the experience of my 4-year-old hoarding and binging raisins wake me up? Nope. I was still buying into the "sugar is evil" mantra. And by this time we were even strictly following the GAPS diet, because I was so sure that if I tweaked our diet enough we would finally find full health. I was wrong.
My wake-up call
Two years ago I was hitting rock-bottom on the GAPS Diet. I didn't understand how I could be feeling worse and worse when I was trying to eat so well. I finally had a wake up call through learning about Matt Stone's Diet Recovery plan. Matt encouraged people to actually follow their body's cues on what to eat, and not to restrict any particular foods just because they were thought to be "bad". While this went against everything I thought I knew about nutrition, I was so desperate to find a solution that I gave it a try.
My body was asking for ice cream, lots of ice cream. So I started eating lots of homemade ice cream (made with unrefined sweeteners) and was shocked at the results. I felt so much better and my body was showing signs of better health: a more normal menstrual cycle and increased waking body temperature. My energy levels were so much higher, and I realized that I had been going through life half-asleep.
This experience made me re-think my conclusions about sugar. If eating more sugar could make me feel so good and improve my body's indicators of health, maybe sugar wasn't really so bad after all.
Some surprising facts about our bodies and sugar
As I started researching more about sugar, I learned that the body actually prefers to use glucose (sugar) as a fuel, and the brain prefers to use ONLY glucose as a fuel. When there isn't enough glucose in the diet, the body undertakes the process of gluconeogenesis, whereby the adrenal glands send messages to the liver and kidneys to convert protein and fat into glucose. These messages from the adrenal glands come in the form of cortisol, which is one of the body’s stress hormones. The body sees a lack of sugar as a stress, and in the long term this can be detrimental.
When the body is deprived of sugar for an extended period of time, the adrenal glands can become overworked since they have to keep sending signals for gluconeogenesis over and over again. Not having enough sugar in the diet can also lead to other problems because the body is constantly in a state of elevated stress.
Breastmilk and sugar
One of the things that makes humans different from other animals is the size of our brains. And given that our brains prefer to use only glucose (sugar) as a fuel, it seems like we would naturally need to consume more sugar than other species. Guess what?Human breastmilk contains twice as much sugar as milk from other mammals such as cows. In fact, the food that most closely resembles breastmilk in nutrient composition is full-fat ice cream. No wonder so many kids crave ice cream!
Letting my kids have more ice cream
I'm not advocating that we eat sugar all day every day, but I am convinced that sugar is a healthy part of our diets. In our home, I am finding the middle ground when it comes to sugar. Instead of looking at sugar as an evil that must be restricted, I am valuing sugar as a part of our diets. When my kids want to eat ice cream, I let them. I am making sure that they have access to homemade sweets and a few storebought treats.
When my 4-year-old son asks for maple syrup in his raw milk, I go ahead and stir a little in. I know that our bodies do need sugar, and his natural desire to make his milk more-closely-resemble breastmilk makes sense. I hope that never again will one of my children feel so deprived of a food that they start to hoard and binge. I am learning to trust our bodies and their guidance with regards to which foods we eat.
I prefer to use unrefined sweeteners, such as sucanat, local raw honey, and Grade B maple syrup. I do still avoid high-fructose corn syrup and agave nectar. But I am also feeling a little freedom, and not stressing about a little white sugar here and there.
Want to read more about how sugar may not be so bad after all? Check out these posts:
Sugar: Prisoner of War by Elizabeth Walling
Sugar: Pure, White, and Awesome by Danny